Will the Real Citizen Cope Please Stand Up?
Photo by Danny Clinch
With the A&R team at Arista including LA Reid, Pharrell Williams and Jermaine Dupri, among others, heavy-hitting producers were available and interested. “But we knew that one of those songs with one of those producers would eat up the budget and change the sound,” he says. Besides, what Cope was putting together on his own was working.
“This guy from Arista came in and … it was such a breath of fresh air to have him react with such positivity,” Cope recalls. “He said, ‘Hey, man, just keep doing what you’re doing.’ It was a great vote of confidence.”
Things were looking good. “LA Reid really loved the record and [told] the staff to make me a priority,” Cope says. “I didn’t have management at the time, so they pretty much did everything for me. It was a really positive, good vibe from the people who loved you there and understood you…. It felt like an inclusiveness that I’d never felt.”
By the time that Cope returned from playing some European dates with Santana, Reid had been fired. Arista was absorbed into the RCA Music Group, and so was Cope’s contract. The album came out in 2004 on RCA but saw poor sales. Cope went back into the studio and came out with Every Waking Moment in 2006. RCA wasn’t in love with the album. Cope wasn’t in love with his experience at RCA. When the label asked him to pick up another option, he declined.
As ready as he’d ever be, he struck out on his own, preparing to do things his own way. Without a label advance, he toured to make the money that it would take to make a record, adding acoustic shows to minimize what he was paying out of pocket.
“It took me a while to even get into the black,” he says. He got back to writing as much as he could between touring. Not only did he write, play and produce what became _The RainWater L_P, but he also manufactured it.
“We were out there putting the packages together. It was like a 20- or 30- step process in this huge, cold, dusty warehouse,” he says. “I spent a fortune on printing. Just ridiculous.”
The album came out on his newly formed label, RainWater—his Uncle Clarence’s last name. One Lovely Day is his second indie release. And though he hints at a potential major label partnership for his next album, he’s intent on keeping control going forward.
Success for Cope now, he says, is “when you feel like you’ve done something and you’re alright with it artistically, and you feel like you can recognize something is good, even if you can’t recognize it as great yet. Deep in your heart, you know that it’s positive, that it works; your vision kinda got there. And that’s how I feel when I finish a record—hopefully. That’s all you can ask for.”
“It’s ten to four,” Cope’s assistant pops in to remind him. He checks his phone to verify, and soon, he’s through the baby-proof gate on the stairs, putting on a thin, fall jacket and walking down his quiet, tree-lined Brooklyn street. It’s a windy Friday in October and the sun has finally peeked through what has been an otherwise cloudy sky.
He’s en route to pick up his 21-month-old daughter from school, and he’s talking about his own childhood. He was born in Memphis, Tenn., and his parents divorced soon after. He moved to Greenville, Miss., with his mom and after she remarried, the family relocated to D.C.—but he spent summers in Texas with his father’s side of the family.
He remembers jamming to The Jackson 5 with his older sister, playing 45s and enjoying music in the car. He recalls listening to Neil Young songs and trying to play them on one string.
But the moment that music had its full impact, he says, was in seventh grade. “This guy played the horn,” he remembers. “They say he was related to Dizzy Gillespie. It was at an assembly and the gospel choir sang this song ‘Thank You, Lord.’ It was something magical. It made me feel so good.”
Two years later, when young Clarence joined the gospel choir himself, he was singing the lead on that same song. It was his first public performance.
“My voice hadn’t changed and the part was really high. I was already getting hella teased about being small and underdeveloped, and my voice was already high. So, I was singing this really high part and thought I was just gonna get hell forever. But I sang it and everyone loved it.”
Still, to this day, he’s pushing past his own doubt, trying to learn and to grow, overcoming whatever surprises life brings. Somehow it all works out for him eventually.
His fanbase continues to grow. He’s been invited to join Clapton again at an upcoming Madison Square Garden show. And despite the past drama of labels looking for TV angles, Cope’s songs have appeared in shows like Scrubs and Entourage, films such as Battleship and The Sentinel, and a commercial for Pontiac. Yet, he denied the license for “Sideways” to one commercial based on the stills. “I was like ‘Man, they’re gonna ruin this song,’” he says. “I don’t have a problem licensing it to a commercial. It’s just…there was something about it. I probably would have been a very wealthy man.”
Cope always goes with his gut. And maybe that’s what resonates, what appeals to his intensely dedicated fans. Here’s a man who, after all this time, puts himself on the line simply because he wants—as he sings in the song—some contact “only because my life depends on it.”
“It’s been a learning process,” he says. “How do you perform? How do you let these people in? I’ll look at somebody and—I know this has been said before—but you kinda see yourself in them. We’re all the same people. We all have our own insecurities and our own struggles and traumas and joys and pains. I think if somebody connected to the record and it helped them, then I think they have a common thread with me somehow.”
He’s arrived at the school and he has his baby girl on his hip. Her golden curls are pulled back like daddy wears his signature dreads. The same sky-blue eyes look into his. He turns to the rest of the class and says, hello. They sit, cross-legged on the daycare floor, looking up at him. A few smile and one waves.
“Did you figure it all out yet?” he asks the class earnestly, waiting for a reply that doesn’t come. “We need you to find the answers for us.”
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